Purim

Holidays: Chag Purim – The Festival of Lots #Purim

A Beta Israel (Ethiopian Israelite) embroidery of Mordechai being honored by the people of Shushuan. Image credit: NACOEJ

Shalom everyone! The holiday of Purim, also known as “Lots,” is celebrated each year on the 14th day of the Twelve Month (Adar), and also on the 15th day of Adar in the city of Jerusalem, and other walled cities (“Shushan Purim”). During leap years on the post-exilic modern “Hebrew” calendar, Purim is celebrated on the 14th day of Adar II; the 14th of the Twelfth Month (Adar I) is called “Purim Katan” (“Little Purim”). The holiday commemorates the deliverance of the Judeans from the evil plan devised by Haman, a royal vizier who plotted to have all the Judeans in the Persian Empire killed by royal decree. This event is recorded in the biblical Book of Esther (“Megillat Esther”). Please note that Purim is a post-Exilic holiday instituted by rabbinic ordinance; it is not one of the appointed times/festivals commanded by The Creator in the Torah.

Background

According to rabbinic tradition, the Book of Esther was written by its lead characters, Esther and Mordechai. Esther was a simple young Jewish woman in the Persian capital city of Shushan. She was an orphan who was adopted by her uncle Mordechai. At the behest of Mordechai, Esther joins the harem of the Persian king, Achashverosh (Ahasuerus/Xerxes I) after the king issues an empire-wide search for a new wife and queen, a position previously held by Queen Vashti who was ordered executed by the king for insubordination. Esther eventually wins the king’s favor and rises to become his wife and queen. Esther does not reveal to the king or to the Persian royal court that she is Judean.

Haman was the king’s chief advisor and minister. He develops a diabolical hatred for the Judeans after Mordechai refuses to bow down to him on two occasions. Mordechai had foiled a palace plot to assassinate the king. Though Mordechai‘s heroic deed is recorded in the royal annals, this information is hidden from the king and Haman takes the credit for himself. Angered that Mordechai would not bow down to him, when Haman learns that Mordechai is Jewish, he plots to have Mordechai and all the Judeans in the 127 provinces of the Persian empire killed. Haman coerces the king into issuing a royal decree for the annihilation of the Judeans. The plan is be executed on the 13th day of Adar, the day chosen by Haman “casting lots” to determine the most auspicious day for this event. Today, on the 13th day of Adar, the day before Purim, traditional Jewish communities observe a fast (“Taanit Esther”).

After learning of Haman‘s evil plan, Mordechai beseeches Esther to use her position as queen to intercede with the king, on behalf of her people, to reverse the evil decree. At first, Esther is fearful, but Mordechai warns her that if she keeps silent, salvation for the Judeans will come from another source while she and her father’s household will perish. Esther then agrees and devotes herself to fasting and praying for three days before approaching the king. She also tells Mordechai to tell the Judeans of Shushan to fast and pray with her. Under pain of death for going uninvited to the king, Esther publicly requests an audience with him; he grants his beloved wife her request. Had the king not agreed to an audience with her, Esther would have been immediately executed.

Esther invites the king to two feasts she is preparing in his honor, in the company of Haman. After the first feast, the king learns that Mordechai saved his life; the king then orders Haman to publicly honor Mordechai, humiliating Haman even further. During the second feast, Esther reveals to the king that she is Judean and that Haman is plotting to have her and her people killed. She asks the king to withdraw the evil decree he issued against her people. The king, unwilling to reverse his original decree, issues a new decree ordering the Judeans in the Persian Empire to arm and defend themselves from anyone trying to kill them. The king becomes enraged at Haman and orders him and his ten sons executed by hanging. Haman and his ten sons are hung until death on the 13th of Adar, on the same gallows on which Haman had intended to hang Mordechai. The Judeans are saved by arming and defending themselves; all their enemies are defeated by the 14th of Adar. As a reward for saving the king’s life, Mordechai is appointed second in command to the king in the Persian Empire. The holiday of Purim is then ordered celebrated every year, with the days of feasting and gladness, the giving of gifts of food and drink to one another, and the giving of charity to the poor.

Holiday Observances

During the feast of Purim, it is the custom to:

  • read or hear a public reading of the Book of Esther (“kriat ha-megillah”) in the evening and morning services at houses of worship;
  • exchange gifts of food and drink with family and friends (“mishloach manot”);
  • give of charity to the poor (“mattanot la-evyonim”),
  • eat of a festive meal (“se’udat Purim”).

Special prayers, “For the Miracles” (“Al ha-Nissim”) are recited during evening, morning and afternoon prayer services, as well as during the grace recited after the festive meal.

In modern times, however, new traditions have become a part of Purim celebrations including, dressing up in costumes, making noise with groggers/rattlers to blot out the name of “Haman” whenever it is mentioned, consumption triangular-shaped cookies with fruit filling called “Haman’s Hats,” and drinking of copious amounts of alcohol. Please be advised, however, that as a kingdom of kings and priests, the Erverhs are not permitted to become drunk, nor participate in events where drunkenness is encouraged, because such behavior is abhorrent, dangerous, shameful and unclean.

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